This article appears on CityMetric courtesy of Blueprint magazine.
The drive down the central axis of Brasília’s Plano Piloto is unlike any other. Vast, sometimes lush fields of grass are surrounded by some of Oscar Niemeyer’s finest works: a stark, white, domed theatre, a cathedral shaped like a crown of thorns, an army of glass and teal-shuttered administrative buildings culminating in the postcard image of two white towers, flanked by two semi-spheres, one of which is upturned in a nod to the scales of justice – the Brazilian Congress. The buildings are beautiful, but it’s really the scale of this so-called Monumental Axis that makes it incredible: huge open spaces, tall towers rising on the horizon, and a sky so blue and boundless it appears coloured in.
Today, the city designed to be Brazil’s capital looks as otherworldly as it did 60 years ago, on 21 April 1960, when architects Lúcio Costa and Niemeyer unveiled it to the world at the behest of then-president Juscelino Kubitschek. “Brasília is the dream of all Brazilians,” Niemeyer told philosopher Marshall Berman in the latter’s 1982 book All That Is Solid Melts into Air – a sprawling, modern capital, enlivening the once semi-deserted central plane of a sleeping giant of a nation. It was at once a clever ploy to facilitate development and a utopia of modernism. But it also became – and remains – a city of contrasts and disparities, ivory towers of government looming over favelas of abject poverty.
Famously designed in the shape of an airplane – or a cross, depending on who you ask – the Brasília we know today was the result of a public competition won by Costa, as the urban planner, and Niemeyer, helming the buildings. “There were dozens of candidates of the highest quality from all over the country that applied,” remembers Professor Carlos Lemos, from the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo. In his 90s today, Lemos was left in charge of Niemeyer’s São Paulo practice in the late 1950s when the boss all but moved to central Brazil to build a new capital. “When the result came out there was a bit of a letdown because many architects had worked extremely hard to solve this puzzle: how to build a country’s capital,” says Lemos. “And in the end it was an incredibly simple project that was selected.”
Though Brasília is quintessentially a modernist city, the notion that the capital of Brazil should be moved to the interior from the historic coastal capital of Rio de Janeiro had been around since at least the mid-18th century. The name “Brasília” was already being used as a then-mythological unifying central capital since at least 1822, and the location of a future city – the approximate mathematical centre of the Brazilian territory – was selected and enshrined in the country’s first constitution in 1891 after it obtained independence from Portugal.
It wasn’t until 1956 and the election of Kubitschek that concrete plans were drawn up and construction began. “The story of Brasília is a completely mythological narrative,” explains historian Walkiria Freitas, undertaking a research fellowship on Brazilian modernism at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO). “It’s all seen as a single homogenous story to push for the construction of a new powerhouse nation in Brazil, and look at territorial unity as a key force. For Kubitschek, building Brasília was just the start of the occupation of the central plains of the country with large-scale agriculture, which is a big driver of wealth in Brazil today.”
Brasília's great lawn was inspired by the National Mall in Washington, DC. (Shutterstock)
Costa and Niemeyer’s Brasília has its roots in Le Corbusier’s seminal Athens Charter (1933), and in that sense, it is not unique in its vision, but is arguably the most complete example of this philosophy ever built. It is the Ville Radieuse, according to the French master’s vision: a linear city based upon the abstract shape of the human body with head, spine, arms and legs. The design maintained the idea of high-rise housing blocks, free circulation and abundant green spaces proposed in his earlier work. Costa, though, described Brasília as an airplane, with the official government buildings and palaces located at the cockpit — perhaps a nod to the modernity and development the capital was meant to deliver to rural Brazil. “It’s a city without street corners,” says Lemos. “No one could imagine how a city without street crossing could possibly work.”
The city is heaving with symbolic value, as a marker of the transformation of Brazilian society. “The Plaza, and the central axis where the ministries are is a space worthy of a great capital,” says Lemos. “Certainly, Costa thought about Washington, DC, when he envisioned this area. The great lawn – which is often dry because it doesn’t rain there – surrounded by buildings of the highest architectural quality is a space of unimaginable grandiosity.”
Costa and Niemeyer carefully crafted a space where all three branches of government are equally represented: a triangle is formed by the Supreme Court, the Planalto Palace – where the Presidential offices are – and and the Congress and Senate towers beyond. There is very little landscaping – it’s rumoured that Niemeyer didn’t want to overshadow his work by adding plants, thus bringing to an end what had previously been a very fruitful relationship with landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. The sparsity of vegetation and the vastness of the central plains ultimately add to the sense of almost ethereal immensity.
The Cathedral of Brasília is shaped like a crown of thorns. (Shutterstock)
Any city would have struggled to live up to the lofty goals to which Brasília was built – of an egalitarian, functional, developed Shangri-La of the tropics, free of the corruption and poverty that that blighted the rest the Brazil. The mere presence of inhabitants occupying these rarefied spaces and interacting with the theoretical narrative behind them would create a paradox making it impossible to implement the architect’s utopian vision, because a city can be a symbol, but it will also always be a living, changing environment. This paradox only grew stronger when Brasília was listed by the Brazilian National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) and subsequently when it became a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. The original Pilot Plan, the part shaped like an airplane, is stuck, rigid and immutable, while the surrounding areas change and grow to accommodate the growing population.
Though the “cockpit” of Brasília’s airplane is the city’s postcard image, it is defined by Costa’s vision for the residential areas, located in the “wings”. In his original plan, Costa envisioned a series of super blocks – residential blocks with mixed-income, high-density housing designed by Niemeyer, and services like schools, shops, churches and entertainment all arranged around a shared internal square or park. These are essentially villages within the city and are extremely popular to this day.
These superblocks were designed “to transform, both architecturally and socially, an urban way of life established in pre-industrial cities,” according to James Holston in his 1989 book The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília. However, because Kubitschek’s building plan involved inaugurating Brasília no later than 1960 (his final year in office), most of the super blocks were never completed. In fact, only one, the now-famous 107 South block, was finished according to Costa’s plan and with Niemeyer’s design. “This mixed-income project was supposed to drive a democratisation of urban spaces in Brasília,” explains Freitas. “This did not work. From an urbanism point of view, the greatest discrepancy between what was proposed for Brasília and what it is today is housing.”
Brasília will never be a very green city: It is impossible to get around without cars and public transport is extremely limited. (Kazuo Okubo)
From its inception, and because of myriad government plans to retain control over the land in the Pilot Plan and its surroundings, real estate speculation was and remains rampant. Additionally, Costa’s plan only accounted for a population of 500,000 people moving into Brasília, but because of a bounty of jobs in construction in the early years and opportunity for service workers later on, workers from all over the country quickly poured into the capital, looking for a piece of the promised land. Today there are over two million inhabitants in Brasília. “They sold the city as a symbol of opportunity, of modernity, and it was very attractive to Brazilians,” says Freitas, “so from the very beginning Brasília buckled under the weight of its inhabitants, many of whom were unwanted. That’s how the Satellite Cities emerged.”
These satellite suburbs are technically neighbouring cities to Costa’s original planned area and vary immensely in quality, ranging from middle-class commuter neighbourhoods to some of the most deprived favelas in the country. Plenty of the poorest areas are the direct result of forced removals of marginalised populations who were seen to be blighting the immaculate Pilot Plan with their illegal, often makeshift settlements. “Some argue that Brasília as it was imagined in the Athens Plan was a good project for a city, but that given the reality of the country it generated a highly segregated city that doesn’t work,” says Freitas. “Ultimately it is a city made for cars, not people, with a total separation of class by urban area.”
The JK Memorial honors former Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek, founder of Brasília. (Kazuo Okubo)
Planning an entire city will always be a challenge because inevitably the one is forced to envision how the city will be used not only in the immediate future, but in the decades and even centuries to come. But countries are still designing dedicated cities, even capitals. Myanmar inaugurated it’s “seat of king’s” planned capital Naypyidaw in 2006, to replace the historic capital Yangon. Like with Brasília, the move placed the administrative capital closer to the geographical centre of the country, but unlike Brasília, there were limited plans to populate the city, and images of deserted six-lane motorways and empty stadiums became emblematic of the city. Today, less than a million people live in Naypyidaw, while Yangon remains the defacto leading city with over 7 million inhabitants.
Egypt, which announced it would be relocating its administrative capital to a new site 45 kilometres away from Cairo, will be looking at Brasília as a blueprint. Government buildings and foreign embassies will be relocated from central Cairo to the new development, in hopes of relieving congestion and overcrowding in the existing capital. The city is currently home to an estimated 18 million people, but that figure is expected to double by 2050. However, there are already notable differences in the two plans: Egypt’s new capital is almost entirely privately funded, while Brasília was a government funded endeavour; Egypt’s new capital will not open until at least 2050, while Brasília was completed in a rush in four years. There are striking similarities too, though, with residential areas being centred around smaller parks with shops and services, with the central administrative services running down the middle. The project is being helmed by SOM, the firm behind the Burj Khalifa and so many other steel and glass skyscrapers.
Because the project is in its early stages, it’s unclear if the new capital will be able to avoid some of the pitfalls that Brasília encountered. “The same criticisms that are being levelled at the Egyptian capital: that it is a vanity project, that it’s diverting resources needed elsewhere in the country, were levelled at Brasília and Kubitschek,” explains Freitas. Egypt, like Brazil, is a country marred by inequality, and it seems unlikely that a privately funded for-profit new capital will prioritise addressing these fundamental concerns. But ultimately, the building of a capital is as much about creating a new icon to revitalise a country’s image than it is about building a functional city.
Today, shortcomings in Brasília’s original masterplan are more apparent than ever as environmental concerns are forcing us to reassess how we live. Brasília will never be a very green city: the air is so dry and hot. It is impossible to get around the city without cars, and public transport is extremely limited, but this problematic car-centric vision was designed into the very fabric of the city.
A statue outside the Federal Supreme Court. (Kazuo Okubo)
In April, on the day Brasília officially completed six decades as the capital, the local government announced plans to relax strict zoning and conservation regulations to permit new construction in the area around Brasília ’s central axis. The idea is that by relaxing restrictions some of the satellite cities and hubs around the preserved Pilot Plan might benefit economically and some of the inequality inherent to the city might be eased, where historically most of the growth has been contained within the historic centre. But there is growing concern amid the population and experts about what that would mean for the Costa and Niemeyer’s beloved nucleus. “The proposal is a dismantling of all the protection of the conservation area,” explains Freitas. “As a historian I have criticised parts of the preservation process that happened in Brasília, but at the same time I cannot defend walking back these protections and leaving the city open to new development. My criticism is meant to help improve the city, and not damage further a site of national heritage.”
When it opened, Brasília might have been a dream of Brazilians, because they dreamt of modernity since their independence from Portugal. But realised dreams, planned utopias, eventually become complex realities. Steeped in contradictions by its very nature, Brasília remains a reflection of the country it represents: beautiful and aspirational, but ultimately dysfunctional and raging with inequality. Said Lucio Costa in 1987’s Brasília Revisited of his most famous creation: “The city, which first lived inside my head, broke free, no longer belongs to me – it belongs to Brazil.”
Rita Lobo is a freelance journalist based in London.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to more accurately describe the layout of the buildings of the three branches of government.